Fort Worth

Judge recuses herself from Muñoz case against JPS hospital

State District Judge Melody Wilkinson has recused herself from hearing a suit against JPS Health Network that was filed this week by the family of a pregnant Haltom City woman who is brain dead and being kept on life support against the family’s wishes.

Wilkinson’s “order of recusal” filed on Thursday did not explain why she believes she should not hear the case.

Marlise Muñoz, 33, has been hospitalized since just before Thanksgiving after she was stricken with what doctors believe was a pulmonary embolism. She was 14 weeks pregnant. After doctors told the family that she was considered brain-dead, the family asked that life support be removed.

Her husband, Erick Muñoz, sued JPS on Tuesday, asking that the hospital stop further medical procedures and remove his wife from respirators, ventilators or other “life support” and release her body.

JPS officials have refused, citing an Texas law that requires pregnant women to be kept on life support until the fetus is viable, usually at 24 to 26 weeks.

In a letter to Jeff Walker, administrative judge for this region, Wilkinson noted: “The Munoz case has time sensitive issues which require immediate attention. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.”

Walker said he will be out of town until Monday and state District Judge R.H. Wallace is serving as presiding judge. When Wallace’s office receives Wilkinson’s notice, the case will be reassigned, Walker said.

The Tarrant County district attorney’s office, which is representing JPS in the suit, declined through a spokeswoman to comment Thursday night on Wilkinson’s recusal.

The attorneys representing the Muñoz family did not comment on the recusal, but in an emailed statement, attorney Jessica Janicek said: “We have recently received Marlise Munoz’s medical records, and can now confirm that Mrs. Munoz is clinically brain dead, and therefore deceased under Texas law.”

Wilkinson could not be reached to comment Thursday night.

The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure list several reasons that judges may recuse or disqualify themselves from court proceedings.

Among the reasons are: if the judge’s impartiality is reasonably questioned; the judge has “personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts” in the matter; the judge or a lawyer with whom the judge once practiced law “has been a material witness” in the matter; and the judge previously served as a lawyer in the matter.

Also, recusal must occur if the judge or the judge’s spouse or “a person within the third degree of relationship of either of them” is a party or has an interest in the case.

Staff writer Bill Miller contributed to this report.

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